Category Archives: Objectivism

The joys and perils of giving ( A small poem)

Giving is truly a joy,

When desires not the other.

For the man who is happy in himself,

Is indeed a worthy soul of high character.

He neither has expectations,

Nor will burden another.

 

The joy can easily turn into pain,

On offering to even a gentle, yet craving soul.

That’s when you hear folks often yell:

‘Oh, you give them an inch,

And they want an ell!’

 

Yet, I say, with all the joys,

A decent soul can bring,

The rose is definitely worth,

Its occassional thorns.

 

But heavens protect you dear,

If you offer even goodwill,

To the cold, dominating and calculating eyes.

Very sweetly, they will charm you,

Into some treacherous social bond.

 

Then, using your benevolence and noble feelings,

They will tower over you,

Demanding you live for theirs

And their collective’s sake.

 

In this fashion dear,

They will feed on you,

Till the last drop of life,

Dries in you.

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The intrinsic approach to Objectivism

The ‘intrinsic’ approach to Objectivism is what makes many ‘Objectivists’ stiff, artificial, dogmatic and not themselves and in turn, I believe, this would be the main reason why they would find it difficult to mingle with people and make friends.

In The Art of Fiction/Non-Fiction, Ayn Rand says that ‘Objectivism’ as such is not an entity that exists in reality, (just as a tree or a rock etc) which one must look upto for guidance. In the sense, there is no ‘Truth’ out there that she has revealed to us which we have to follow. She emphasises that any philosophy just gives broad guidelines, but one must essentially live by one’s own judgement. (In essence, what Objectivism says is value ‘reason’… you have a mind capable of understanding reality, reality is an absolute. So use YOUR own mind to uphold this life and make the most of it…Objectivism nowhere says that you have to follow what Ayn Rand has said, unlike some Koran or the Bible)…And if one doesn’t use his own judgment and just takes AR’s words for it and tries to impose Objectivism on him or herself, the result is really disastrous.

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Indian “Objectivists”

From my experience with what little interacting I have done with ‘Objectivists’ (people who claim to be Objectivists)in India, I have found that many of them had a strong sense of alienation…in fact, over the years, I have come to believe that in India, many of the people who don’t fit in (for whatever reason, many a times for faults within them, which they are not ready to identify) find in Ayn Rand a justification for the way they are, and for the fact that they are generally rejected/despised by others. It is only enough for them that Roark doesn’t fit in and is hated, or John Galt et al are fighting the system…and AR taken out of context in a superifical way, also seems to glorify to them the pursuit of pleasure, ie sex, money and the glittering life. They take all this to mean that they are right (their mindless way of living ie) and the society in which they are not appreciated, have never understood or fitted in, is wrong, and cling on to Ayn Rand dogmatically, as their only sense of identity. They take little effort to really understand her ideas or integrate them to their lives.
Unfortunately, to most of the people who are serious about knowledge in India, Ayn Rand comes out as scandalous and a pleasure-chaser. Or they just see her (and at times appreciate her) as a novelist, a writer of pure fiction and not as a philosopher. The reason fo this, I believe is that the western world and its ideas and within that framework, the ideas of Ayn Rand, are do dramatically different from the world of tradtional Indian mystical culture…so, while for a westerner, he has the framework of western ideas and culture (particularly Aristotelian and other Greek influences) from which to understand and properly place in context the ideas of Ayn Rand, traditional Indians brought up in Indian mysticism do not have any such framework in which to properly place and understand her ideas…they find her ideas extreme and too radical to handle.
To give just one example, the traditional Indian has not understand what individualism or personal space and freedom is really about (he might equate that with the mindless swayings and drug culture of some of the dance parties he sees on MTV and reject it)…so, he really would not understand what it means when AR says she is a champion of individualism…he might see her as a champion of the druggies or hedonists etc., so and so forth with all her other fundamental ideas.
In short, unlike the west, there has been no Aristotelian or Greek influence on Indian society, no Renaissance based on the primacy of existence and reason. And without that context and framework, Ayn Rand would come out as ‘weird’ to most Indians. In a way, Indian society has to first go through a Greek Renainasance before it can be ready for Ayn Rand.

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The tramp as valuer in Atlas Shrugged

I had said before that a good person is basically a valuer, one who values this life, and takes the effort to uphold the derivative values needed to value his life, while the most basic evil of a bad person is that he doesn’t care at all for his life and happiness (his quest is to avoid pain and effort, and the fear of death, among other fears, keeps him going. In this sense, if for us, opting out of this life was as simple as pressing a light switch, where no pain is involved, then I guess many of the parasites would have turned off their lives in their early youth…just a thought)

Incidentally, I can think of a small passage in Atlas Shrugged, which brings this point of a valuer being a good person, in a nice way. The passage I am referring to is when the train conductor is about to throw off a tramp who has hidden himself in the corridor of Dagny’s compartment. As of the entire AS, the passage is brilliantly written…I will just reproduce a few lines from it.

Page 603 of the edition I have: “An aging tramp had taken refuge in the corner of her vestibule. He sat on the floor, his posture suggesting that he had no strength left to stand up.”

“The tramp’s suit was a mass of careful patches on a cloth so stiff and shiny with wear that one expected it to crack like glass if bent, but she noticed the collar of his shirt: it was bone-white from repeated laundering and it still preserved a semblance of shape. He had pulled himself up to his feet, he was looking indifferently at the black hole open upon miles of uninhabited wilderness where no one would see the body or hear the voice of a mangled man, but the only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small, dirty bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train.

“It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions — the gesture of a sense of property —that made her feel an emotion like a sudden, burning twist within her. “Wait,” she said, “Let him be my guest.”

And then she invites him to dine with her.

Notice that it was when Dagny saw that he still held something dear to him, he still held onto some values, he still cared about his collar and made sure not to loose his bundle, which was precious to him, even as he faced almost certain death, that it made her cry out to save him. This is the concept of the valuer as basically agood person, and note Dagny’s willingness to actually invite him to dine with her.

Note what the tramp wasn’t…He wasn’t an Objectivist (of course, he couldn’t have read AR 😉 )

b) He was a jobless tramp, not a successful person (though of course, given the situation in AS, it would not be his fault entirely…he is shown to be guilty in a way, by supporting the plans of the looters at the Twentieth Century Motor Co. However, this point isnot really significant, because whether he deserved becoming a tramp or not is not the reason which makes Dagny save him).

c) He is not flawless in terms of character — he might have been irrational in certain areas, some would say that he was not an honest person in some respects, that he might have been an altruist or socialist in some respects, especially as he approves the socialist plan at the meeting of the motor company, etc.

This set me pondering: There was a time when I would not associate with such ‘irrational’ people who have been failures in their lives. I would have certainly not cared two hoots for him, especially as he is not an Objectivist, nor a very successful or productive person. Yet, Dagny findshim worthy to be her companion.Surely, there were certain aspects which I was missing out then.

Now, i.e. today, I would say that I was foolish — there are many, many such valuers around us, whom we at times haughtily reject, ridicule and don’t want to associate with. Yet they would be worthy, at least at some level. In fact, old Hindi movies is a good place to see characters such as these and much, much greater.

On a different note, a point that occurred to me was the tramps one sees on Bombay’s railway stations, the beggars and vagabonds. How many of them would be victims of Socialist India, or of the accident of being born in an irrational family. It’s really a sad testimony. I am in no way advocating that one start feeling responsible for them, and abandon one’s happiness. But the thought did come to me, that there would be amongst them, some who would be similar to the tramp in Atlas Shrugged. And there was a time that I used to be blindly contemptuous and cold to all of them.

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How not to learn from The Fountainhead

Considered from all aspects, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is a work of a genius. (As a personal comment, I add here that the book and the author are extremely dear to me) However, brilliant as the book is, it can be dangerous to learn from it outside the context of its theme. This danger is not limited to the Fountainhead alone; it is true of any book.

However, given Howard Roark’s distinct, larger-than-life, and heroic characterization, making this mistake is easier. In fact, there is good reason to suspect that, based on this error, many new readers of the Fountainhead conclude that Objectivism is impractical and never go on to learn further about it. After all, some have said to me: How can anyone meaningfully live like Howard Roark in today’s irrational world? Then there are those who do go further to understand Objectivism, but based on this erroneous conclusion, try to apply the philosophy in an incorrect, and potentially devastating way.

Even as this problem applies to all books, it is particularly aggravated in the case of non-fiction books. A novel as a work of art is a selective recreation of reality, based on the overall theme and subsequent plot-structure the author seeks to dramatise. In other words, a good author will include those aspects of reality which help him dramatise his story effectively —anything that is incidental or unimportant is left out. But does this mean that all those aspects of reality which the author leaves out in his novel are necessarily unimportant in life? No!!!
In other words, what is shown as unessential in a novel need not be unimportant in real life. For instance, one common lament one often hears about Objectivism is that the subject of children and how they should be properly raised is largely ignored by Ayn Rand in her novels. By this, they seem to imply that Objectivism as a philosophy regards the issue of raising children as unimportant. But this is simply not true, as, what is unessential to AR from the perspective of her novels need not be an unimportant philosophical issue in life.

Having dwelt on the source of the problem, let me come to my main point: I am afraid that I have seen people in India treat The Fountainhead, with the character of Howard Roark in mind, as a literal textbook on how to live. And at times, with devastating results.

Bear in mind that the Fountainhead does not even factor in the oppressive political governments of most nations today. Hence, living in the world of today, it would be in some aspects at least, self-defeating for one to live exactly like Howard Roark.

For instance, imagine Howard Roark, as he is, transposed to Atlas Shrugged, in the same party with Hank Rearden, where Francisco pronounces Hank the guiltiest of all for carrying the burden of the parasites. Keep in mind that Hank carries the parasites on both levels, on a personal level with regards to his parasitical family as well as feeds the state and the oppressive system.

Wouldn’t then, for the same reasons, Francisco be obliged to pronounce Howard Roark as the guiltiest of all as well? Note that Howard Roark sees nothing wrong in helping a parasite such as Peter Keating all along, helps him earn fame and wealth which he didn’t deserve. Contrast this with how Francisco treats James Taggart and his gang.
Projecting Francisco in your minds, ask yourself if he would have helped Peter Keating acquire wealth and fame he hadn’t earned? Or let Ellesworth Toohey get away with the Stoddard Temple issue?

Besides misunderstanding one’s appropriate relationship with parasites, I suspect there is also a tendency among new readers of Fountainhead to conclude from Roark’s aloofness, although erroneously, that they need not understand, judge, learn to relate and deal with people around them. That, just as Roark is only meaningfully conscious and appreciative of those people who share his values, they can happily forget the Toohey’s and James Taggart’s of this world, unless physically obstructed. And they may also tend to conclude that just as Roark finally succeeds in The Fountainhead, the Toohey’s and James Taggart’s will fall by themselves. Others, I suspect, regard this as an impractical attitude to take, and conclude that Objectivism is an idealistic but impractical philosophy.
Of the many instances of Roark’s actions that may help form this erroneous attitude, I can remember his famous reply to Toohey’s question, when Toohey asks Roark privately, what he thought about him. To this Roark replies: ‘But I don’t think of you’ Or rather, seems to reply: Why should I ever have a need to think of you and others like you… This erroneous conclusion makes many new readers to take Roark’s aloofness as a guiding principle for their life: That they need only think about people who share their common values and can happily withdraw in their own productive pursuits, forgetting the parasites.

Put into practise, such a person would then find himself at a loss on how to deal with the parasites around him, and would feel a growing sense of isolation and frustration, stemming from his inability to deal with people. This, of course, is in stark contrast to Objectivism, where such a withdrawal amounts to a failing to practise the virtue of justice. Moreover, such an attitude is what parasites would really want from any productive person, and might even be the first step in the making of a Robert Stadler in the long-run. AR has herself said that one should know, in clear, explicit terms, about the character of everyone one regularly interacts with. This is a prerequisite for any just man; before he can treat people as they deserve, he should be interested in knowing about their characters and motives. Hence, unattractive as the prospect of understanding parasites may seem, one cannot be oblivious of the James Taggart’s and Toohey’s in one’s social circles.

But does the above, in any way, point to a shortfall in the Fountainhead? No. AR’s aim in the book is to essentially dramatize the ideal man, in his relationship with existence. Hence, given this context, her focus was primarily on the individual and how his relationship with existence need not alter from the pressures of irrational men around him (though viewed only from a non-political context). Given this theme, it was unessential for her to explore, in-depth, the social problems and conflicts that a rational man would face in an irrational, politically oppressive society, and the proper remedies for the same. In keeping with its theme, Roark’s aloofness and obliviousness of people around him is relevant and proper.
Incidentally, there is a stark difference between Roark’s attitude and that of Francisco’s in Atlas Shrugged. In contrast to Roark, Francisco is shown more potent when it comes to dealing with people, especially the parasites. He understands their motives and characters and beats them at their own game. For example, Francisco would have been interested in understanding the motives of the men behind the Monadock Valley project or the Stoddard Temple in the Fountainhead, and as per my projections, would have given back to them, a dose of their own medicine — something which Roark is contented to let go by and see the men destroyed by themselves.
Francisco’s characterization also ties in with the theme of Atlas Shrugged, which deals with man’s proper relationship with other men and society in general, from a social as well as a political context. In this book, the heroes are shown to already know how to deal with existence properly, and AR’s main focus is on dramatizing their struggle and conflicts in dealing with the society around them. Hence, Francisco is shown to be more interested in understanding and dealing with social issues and problems, something which would have been outside the scope of Roark’s character in The Fountainhead.

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On the order of Objectivism’s fundamental values

I used to often wonder at the order of the highest values that Ayn Rand sets out in Objectivism: Reason, then Purpose and then followed by Self Esteem. The order in which they are given at that time seemed to imply that Reason ought to be our most fundamental value, followed by Purpose and Self Esteem.

Now, I see differently and still understand why that order is necessary, and what AR really meant. Out of the three, it is Purpose which ought to be our central value, the driving force of our lives. “A man without a purpose,” said Francisco D’Anconia in AS, “is the most immoral of men,” not without good reason.

Life is essentially goal-directed action, and so is the value of Purpose. AR defines life as ‘a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.’ Notice the prime emphasis here is on action directed to a single goal — self-sustenance.

However, the context of purpose differs between plants and animals and us human beings. If we were to ask of a plant or animal, what is the purpose of its life, then we would get the cyclical answer, ‘life itself’ or its own survival. In other words, ‘they live in order to live,’ or that for them, life is an end in itself.

For human beings, the same can be said for the automatic functions of our body parts and organs, and reflex actions. Their purpose is again ‘self-sustenance.’

However, with regards to the volitional actions of our mind and consequently our body, we have a choice to either attempt to live by the method of animals, seeking physical survival by any means and cost, or strive to achieve happiness, which according to Ayn Rand, ought to be the highest moral purpose of every human being.

Existentially, life is an end in itself, but psychologically, for rational human beings, happiness ought to be the end we should strive for. Those who do place their happiness above mere sustenance, often prefer to face physical hardships, even torture and death rather than give up their chance of living happily, as a human being ought to. This is in contrast to animals, who face no such issues and choices; for them, survival at any cost is their ultimate end.

Then again, for humans, there are those who prefer to live on the level of animals as parasites, and are ready to survive at any cost, while abandoning their happiness.
It is precisely to achieve a life befitting a human being, to pursue happiness as our highest moral end, that we need to hold on to the long-range value of purpose. This need is dictated by our nature as human beings, as AR has so convincingly proved in the Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged.

A man can never live happily and successfully as a mental parasite, who depends on others to discover the knowledge needed for his survival or as a material parasite, who lives off the efforts of others. Alone in the jungle, such a man would not survive even for a day, and hence, such behaviour is suicidal, inimical to our nature and works against our life and happiness.

If we do value our lives and happiness, then we have no choice but strive to be creators and/or producers in any long-term rational endeavour which helps us in either dealing with reality effectively (the natural sciences) or in dealing with other men in a society justly and appropriately (the social sciences).

In the primitive stages of society, with no division of labour and specialization, and knowledge levels at bare minimum, it would have been possible (or rather necessitated by the circumstances) for a man to be a carpenter, hunter, cook, house builder all rolled in one. But as societies mature, with division of labour and specialization, one can meaningfully pursue only one or two or three long-term careers and hope to achieve something new and path-breaking. This is the concept and the need for holding the value of purpose as central to our lives, to create something new or expand production of some existing things, as one’s mark and contribution as a moral human being.

It is this pursuit of long-term productive goal(s) which is signified by the value of Purpose, without which a human-like existence would not be possible, nor happiness.
And it is this quality, which is the essential differentiator between the producer and parasite, between the good person and bad. I have read Leonard Peikoff say somewhere that the good person, according to AR, would essentially be a ‘valuer,’ he is the one who first and foremost values this life and happiness (by choice), and because he values his life, he exerts the efforts to find out what’s true and good for him (the virtue of rationality), as he knows that he cannot cheat reality ( the virtue of honesty) and only the right will make him happy, and then strives to achieve the good. In the process, he develops the character required for him to achieve his values, ie self-esteem, sincerity, honesty, confidence, courage, justness, civility etc. A valuer is one who essentially pursues long-range goals and holds on to a purpose.
On the other hand, eking out a survival on any terms and living on the mental and physical efforts of others doesn’t require the holding of any long-range productive purpose. It is, as said before, on a similar footing to the primary concern of plants and animals to sustain their lives — of course, plants/animals are genuinely incapable of taking the parameters of their lives beyond the level set by their nature.

The particular purpose a man may hold on to would differ from individual to individual, as long as the purpose is rational and furthers human life. The particular choice may depend on many factors, from chance association to the habits and preferences one has automatised in his childhood, to one’s level of awareness and the influences of one’s surroundings—for example, someone may learn to play a game with ease in childhood, another may play a music instrument, and yet another may write with ease and based on these, the respective individuals may pursue different long-term goals.

Now, the question that arises is that if Purpose is the central value of our lives, then why does Reason takes precedence over it and why does Self-Esteem follow it. And why not some other value?

Animals and plants automatically know what course of action to follow to uphold their lives, it’s ingrained in them. For us, before we can hold on to any value or a long-term purpose, we have to first discover what is good for us and what is bad for us. This is where our faculty of reason comes in — in order to hold on to any purpose, we first need to discover and define it appropriately using our faculty of reason. Hence, valuing reason and knowledge is a precondition, without which no one could hold to a rational purpose.

It is true that the very act of pursuing a goal requires the constant integration of knowledge, and the two values are at times so intricately intertwined, that they at times are indistinguishable. In popular parlance, the combined application of reason and purpose, is often termed as ‘work.’

However, an important point can be made from the above. Reason and knowledge are only tools, and their pursuit can never be ends in themselves. Ideas divorced from action, as AR has said, is hypocrisy.

Only life existentially and our happiness psychologically are proper ends in themselves. However, many people pursue knowledge as an end in itself, divorced from its application to reality and the implications to their personal lives (the Robert Stadler types and ivory tower scientists and intellectuals).

This is where, a person majoring in Philosophy and Aristotle, once told me, Ayn Rand differs from Aristotle. I do not personally know what Aristotle said or meant, though I have read in some paper on the net as well, that Aristotle held that Reason ought to be man’s prime value, the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom, apparently for its own sake. AR differed here, pointing out that it is Purpose or in layman’s terms, productive work that ought to be man’s central value, and the exercise of reason and acquisition of knowledge is a means to that end.

Claiming to have knowledge and not acting upon it (to uphold the good and put down the bad) is a sort of hypocrisy, as said earlier.

In real life, one can see many examples of people who mistakenly go after knowledge as an end in itself. One may have met the chap who completes Phd’s in psychology or other social sciences, is very learned but does not know how to deal with his spouse, children, parents or neighbours justly and properly. In fact, his illiterate parents turn out to be more wise in these matters.

Hence, even as reason would be our first value, it cannot by itself ensure the pursuit and achievement of our goals or for that matter, our lives. It is only the application of knowledge in pursuit of our values that can achieve our values and life, though the values of reason and purpose, as said above, are really intricately intertwined together. Reason is a precondition for our holding on to any rational purpose, and hence, in terms of order, precedes purpose.
Now, where does self-esteem come in all this?
Notice that once a rational purpose is defined in its full context through the use of reason and knowledge, the pursuit of any meaningful activity is a long-term process, which at times requires a life-time of dedication. Moreover, in order to be able pursue a long-term value, one has to be convinced that a) One is capable of doing it and b) It is worth the struggle

Firstly, one will only choose to hold that purpose which one thinks, whether rightly or wrongly, that he is capable of doing it. For instance, with good reason, I would not even dream of aiming to climb Mount Everest. I know, with my current physical capabilities, I can never do it. Or, I would not even dream of holding on to a purpose of writing a novel in German (as I have no clue of the language). So, before one attempts to pursue a value, one should be convinced that he can do it. This is where self-esteem comes in.

Self-esteem is not just about self-image, as many psychologists claim. Like any other value, it has to be earned. It is basically how efficacious you really are in dealing with reality, and is a reflection of that. For instance, just by changing my self-image, I wouldn’t be able to climb Mt Everest or write the German book. I would have to change myself in reality, I would have to increase my physical strength and stamina, or I would have to master the German language. Hence, the scope and depth (or degree of difficulty) of the purpose you choose to hold will depend on your efficacy and estimate of yourself, ie your self-esteem. To hold on to even the simplest of purposes, you will need to have some minimal level of self-esteem.

True, at times, there are situations where one is actually capable of undertaking a task, but one erroneously thinks that one cannot do it. This is a genuine problem of self-image, and many of us are affected by this too, one way or another. This problem can be dealt with introspection and thinking, though it does many a times stops us from attempting many things in life.

As an aside, the exhortation to ‘Believe in yourself’ we come across in the conventional media is not unfounded; its truth lies in our need for self-esteem to hold on to our purpose.

The other aspect with regards to self-esteem is that the pursuit of fundamental values takes years and is fraught with difficulties, from the accidents of nature to the irrationality and evil of people around us. Also, success is never guaranteed to us. Hence, the fact that we need to struggle against these odds, we have to be convinced that it is worth it. Art does help us here, offering us the experience of the ecstasy and joy of living in the world which we are fighting for, a taste of how it would feel when our values have been accomplished, to reinforce to us that it is indeed worth the struggle.

However, the other aspect remains “ Am I good or worthy of enjoying it? Or am I despicable hypocrite or coward, who has no right to be happy. Your moral evaluation of yourself, your self worth, is paramount here to whether you will allow yourself to be happy or not. You can never stand seeing people you despise as happy, including your own self.

This is the aspect where the need to earn self-respect comes in. How to properly earn self-respect is a subject in itself. However, the prime principle which AR identifies in this regard is —never live on the unearned, whether materially or spiritually and you will be able to look at yourself squarely in the mirror.

Otherwise, without self-respect, and the chance of being happy, the chances of holding on to a long-range goal get slim.

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